Opinion: Newspapermen to the core

They came from across the state on that Thursday night in late October, filling the Wally Allen Ballroom in downtown Little Rock for what the Arkansas Press Association billed as its Freedom Gala.

At a time when newspapers are struggling nationwide and people's trust in the media is low, this was a chance to pay tribute to those who have provided service to journalism and Arkansas.

A highlight of the evening came when the APA presented its distinguished service award to Craig Renaud and his late brother Brent Renaud. Brent was killed March 13 while reporting on the war in Ukraine. His reporting partner on that assignment, Juan Arredondo, was in attendance.

With events having been postponed due to the pandemic, the APA presented both its 2020 and 2021 Headliner of the Year awards. The 2020 recipient was Gov. Asa Hutchinson for his daily communication at the onset of the pandemic. The 2021 recipient was Hunter Yurachek, the University of Arkansas athletic director who has taken the athletic program in Fayetteville to new heights.

Hutchinson and Yurachek both spoke. But leave it to a longtime newspaperman to make news. Walter Hussman Jr. surprised us all when he announced that he will retire by the end of the year as publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Hussman, who was introduced by daughter Eliza Hussman Gaines, told those in attendance that "the time is now for the next generation."

As master of ceremonies, I was seated behind Hussman and able to watch the faces of fellow Democrat-Gazette employees. The shock was evident. Journalists will always do their jobs, though. I saw them pulling their phones out so they could tweet the news.

Family ownership is becoming rare in the newspaper industry. The good news for those of us who work here is that WEHCO Media Inc. will continue to be a family business with Hussman as chairman. For that reason, I'm convinced that Arkansas will still have what's probably the last true statewide newspaper in the country.

Hussman and Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett were honored with Golden 50 awards, which go to those who have given at least 50 years of service to the newspaper industry. Both are newspapermen to the core. Brummett talked about his experiences as a 16-year-old who came to work each morning before school at Little Rock's afternoon newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat.

In 1986, the Arkansas Gazette gave Brummett a political column. He went on to become one of the most famous columnists in the state's history. He continues to churn out four columns a week.

Skip Rutherford, retired dean of the Clinton School of Public Service and founder of the Political Animals Club, introduced Brummett and talked about his many years in the business.

Rutherford said: "Over these 52 years--which have included working for the Arkansas Democrat, Log Cabin Democrat at Conway, Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, John has inspired the most frequent journalism question I've been asked throughout my career: 'Have you read Brummett today?' From giving people nicknames, to up-and-down arrows; from reflective commentary about family members and McClellan High School teachers to Bubba McCoy's sage wisdom; John is an excellent wordsmith.

"But politics is his expertise. Those with an interest in Arkansas politics might consider meetings of the Political Animals Club as must-attend events. They also consider John Brummett's political commentary as a must-read. And what many of you may not know is that John helped change the course of politics in Arkansas and America."

Rutherford was referring to columns Brummett wrote in 1990 urging Democrats to cross over to the GOP primary and vote for Sheffield Nelson against Tommy Robinson in the race for governor. Rutherword, chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party for part of 1990, feared Robinson would defeat Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton in the fall. Nelson defeated Robinson in the primary (with a large number of those crossover votes), and Clinton was re-elected that November.

In 1993, Brummett moved to Washington, D.C., to chronicle Clinton's first year as president. Brummett wrote a book titled "High Wire: From the Back Roads to the Beltway, the Education of Bill Clinton." The columnist returned to Arkansas in 1994.

Brummett left the Democrat-Gazette in 2000 to write for Donrey Media Group, which later became Stephens Media. He rejoined the Democrat-Gazette in October 2011. I'm glad he's still at it. Brummett joked about how Hussman hired and rehired "a columnist who writes columns with which he disagrees."

When it comes to having ink in the veins, it's hard to top members of the Hussman family. Hussman's grandfather, Clyde Palmer, bought his first newspaper at Texarkana in 1909. He was traveling from Texas to Florida on his honeymoon. When the train stopped at Texarkana, Palmer decided to buy one of the city's newspapers for $900.

"Growing up hearing this story, I always found it kind of odd that he purchased a newspaper while on his honeymoon," Gaines said. "But then I learned that my own father took my mom to a newspaper conference on their honeymoon. Apparently in this family, newspapers and romance go hand in hand."

Palmer bought additional newspapers across south Arkansas in the 1920s. Palmer's daughter Betty met Walter Hussman Sr. when they were studying journalism at the University of Missouri. Walter Sr. went to work for his father-in-law. When he returned from World War II, the elder Hussman decided he wanted a newspaper of his own. He purchased the Camden News.

"Starting at age 10, Walter Jr. spent summers and after school working at his family newspaper, starting in the mailroom and working his way up to a reporter at the El Dorado News-Times," Gaines said. "After studying journalism at the University of North Carolina and then business at Columbia, he landed a job as a reporter at Forbes. He eventually returned to Camden to help run the family business. By this point, his father had taken over all the newspapers and the family's investment in radio and cable television."

The company bought the struggling Arkansas Democrat in 1974, and the younger Hussman became a publisher at age 27. He talked at the banquet about how he fell short of the goals that had been set for the first three years. He feared he would be "a business failure at age 30."

He decided to move the Democrat to morning publication and go after the dominant Gazette. Most readers of this newspaper are familiar with the story of the great Little Rock newspaper war that followed.

"On Oct. 18, 1991, Gannett shut down the Gazette, and the Democrat purchased all of its assets," Gaines said. "I was only 4 years old, but I can remember the deafening cheers in the newsroom as my dad, standing on a desk, announced that we had won the war. Since then, the company has acquired newspapers in Chattanooga, Tenn., and several papers in Missouri."

Hussman's next challenge was dealing with the rise of the digital age, which sent newspaper profits across the country into a spiral.

"In 2018, the Democrat-Gazette was at a crossroads," Gaines said. "After 20 consecutive profitable years, the newspaper was looking at a loss. My dad knew he didn't want to sacrifice the quality of the newspaper by cutting pages or newsroom staff. He also knew there was no way print could compete with the economics of delivering content digitally. His solution was to stop home delivery of the print newspaper and instead offer subscribers a free iPad to read an exact replica of the print edition.

"Obviously, he was taking a risk. But he traveled across the state explaining to readers why this was a necessary move. ... Newspapers are not just a business. They're vital to our democracy, and Arkansas needs a robust, trusted, reliable news source in an era where trust in journalism is slipping."

Thank you, readers, for buying into his vision.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.